From green tea to bamboo and lychees, bakers and pastry chefs are using Asian flavours to galvanise their summer menus. The result is a flourishing cross-cultural celebration of ingredients, textures, techniques and presentation, with a seamless transition from savoury to sweet.
Bánh Mi Mania
Come lunch time, queues of office workers and tradies form outside Vietnamese bakeries with cult-like fervour – and it’s no surprise. The perfect fusion of South-East Asian and French culinary traditions, bánh mi – otherwise known as Vietnamese pork rolls – are delicious, healthy and affordable.
Technically, bánh mi is a Vietnamese term for all kinds of bread. In Australia, however, the term usually refers to a single serving of a French-style baguette filled with pork and fresh South-East Asian vegetables.
An authentic bánh mi (pronounced bun-mee) has no less than 10 ingredients, each playing a part in balancing sweet, savoury, sour and spicy flavours.
Specifically, the fillings can include steamed, pan-roasted or oven-roasted seasoned pork belly, Vietnamese sausage, grilled pork, grilled pork patties, pork floss, pork pâté or, less commonly, chicken. With it, comes fresh cucumber slices, coriander, raw onion, pickled carrots and daikon (white radish) slices, along with a spicy chili sauce and mayonnaise. Most bánh mi shops also top off the roll with their own light soy sauce, incorporating fish sauce, sugar, garlic, vinegar and stock.
Nonetheless the real indicator of an exceptional bánh mi is the bread. Vietnamese bakers, schooled in the French tradition, are skilled in the art of the golden bread roll, which is crusty on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside.
No self respecting bánh mi connoisseur could go past Melbourne’s inner suburbs, where thriving communities of Vietnamese expats enjoy a strong foothold in the bakery scene. N Tran Bakery in Prahran and South Yarra, and Nhu Lan Bakery in Footscray are among the most coveted bánh mi outlets in Melbourne, offering only the most authentic bánh mi ingredients wedged between freshly baked bread.
Not to be outdone is Vietnamese street food specialist, Roll’d. The business, which has a number of locations throughout Melbourne, is the result of three Vietnamese-Australian men wanting to share their mothers’ traditional food with locals.
“Eating together is a way of life in Vietnam. You see it in the men, women and children crowded around food stalls for a quick bite during the day, or in the way a dozen relatives and friends cram around a tiny dining table built for six,” a spokesperson for Roll’d says.
“We call our bánh mi Mr Bun Mee. Born in Saigon and crafted in Melbourne, the traditional street vendor baguette comes with pâté and Mama Ly’s mayonnaise.
“Simple principles are successful – simple, healthy ingredients equal convenient, fuss-free and delicious food.”
Melbourne culinary visionaries Bernard Chu and Yen Yee have long been inspired by luxury pâtisseries abroad. Originally from Malaysia, the pair is hugely influenced by Asian cuisine and their booming pâtisserie business, LuxBite, serves an array of classic desserts with a cross-cultural twist.
Even with the onslaught of experimental macaron flavours in recent years, LuxBite’s products remain among the most unique. In fact, it’s one of the only places you can find macarons infused with lychee, bamboo, guava and kaffir lime.
“We grew up with an Asian palate and will always love Malaysian flavours. That’s why we chose, very early on, to incorporate these flavours into our pastry, such as the satay marinade and prawn mousse (otak-otak) into our brunch offering,” Bernard says.
“For our macarons, the pandan flavour is hugely popular, even with our non-Malaysian customers.”
The pair has even introduced a new contender to commemorate Chinese New Year in February; a delightful pineapple tart macaron.
For Yen, cakes are also a blank canvas, so to speak, on which to experiment with Asian flavours traditionally reserved for savoury meals.
“Easily recognisable Asian ingredients like green tea and wasabi are becoming very popular, but we try to go further to incorporate a series of flavours and textures to create a memorable experience for the customer. For example, in the green tea cheesecake we use, of course, green tea, but also Japanese rice wine and pistachio. For the banoffee we incorporate Sichuan pepper as well as banana,” Yen says.
“We believe ‘culinary’ is about being innovative and inquisitive and ingredients shouldn’t be limited to just a few recipes. It takes experimentation to realise the full potential of an ingredient and that’s the beauty of being in the food business,” Bernard adds.
A Perfect Matcha
While macarons are rooted in the French tradition, incorporating distinctly Asian ingredients can give them enough of an edge to stand out from the pack.
Since publishing a matcha macarons with black sesame paste recipe in August, Sydney food blogger Fiona Ho has been inundated with interest from pastry chefs, bakers and home cooking enthusiasts.
Originating in Japan, matcha (pronounced MA-cha) refers to finely milled or fine powder green tea.
The Japanese tea ceremony centres on the preparation, serving and drinking of matcha, which has cemented its place in the national culinary zeitgeist. In Australia, however, matcha is also used to flavour and dye foods, such as mocha and soba noodles, ice cream and a variety of wagashi (Japanese confectionary).
“Matcha powder is absolutely the greatest invention for bakers,” Fiona says.
“It has a very vibrant green colour, a strong aromatic earthy smell, along with a slight bitterness to the tongue. But that is exactly what I love, that bitterness in baked treats.”
Spicing up Belgian chocolate
With four generations of chocolate making experience, the team at Belle Fleur Fine Chocolates aren’t afraid to source unconventional ingredients from around the world.
Everyday, in their kitchens in Petersham and Rozelle, New South Wales, the team at Belle Fleur Fine Chocolates make exquisite handmade treats. And, while the business has long been rooted in the celebrated European chocoalte tradition, manager and chocolatier Claire ter Heerdt is looking to Asia to satisfy what she deems, “the adventurous culinary spirit” of Aussie consumers.
“In the last 10 years, those involved in the Australian food industry, chocolatiers included, have embraced Asian flavours in a big way,” Claire says.
“It’s not just because our Asian customer base is expanding, it’s also becuase people are experimenting with Asian flavours in their own homes and expecting we do the same with our chocolates.”
Belle Fleur even has a couple of Asian pastry chefs on board, who Claire says regularly play with ingredients from back home. As a result, among the 50-or-so products on display, it’s not uncommon to find chocolate and ganache infused with chilli, lemongrass, wasabi and Chinese five spices (star anise, fennel seed, cassia bar, black pepper and cloves).
“I’m not surprised chilli-infused chocolate has gained such a strong following in Australia. It delivers a perfect hit of heat at the end of the tasting, which lingers in the back of the throat,” she said.
The use of wasabi builds on this principal, while adding a distinctly Japanese flavour.
“Wasabi is more of an instant heat but then disappears quite quickly – it is a less intense heat than the chilli. The wasabi has a more all-round, herbal and earthy flavour,” Claire says.
“Herbs and chocolate go very well together. We have done a herbal range in the past, so we know this works.”
With so many chocolatiers traveling abroad, Claire foresees an even stronger multicultural fusion between Belgian-style chocolate and Asian ingredients on the horizon.
“There are also a lot of Belgian chocolate shops in Asia these days, so they too must adapt to new markets,” she says.
“There are not as many boundaries as there used to be, in terms of playing with different ingredients from different countries and cultures. Remember, it’s not just chocolatiers who are travelling, but also customers who are eating their way through different countries.”
For bakers, pastry chefs and chocolatiers interested in experimenting with Asian flavours, Claire says, “prepare for a lot of trial and error.”
“You need to adapt the flavours to get the right balance. For example, we trialled green tea ganache, which was not so popular. Some flavours work well with chocolate and others simply don’t,” she says.
“The key is to have the creative flavours there as a talking point among a range of flavours that are still traditional. Customers will inevitably add at least one of the creative chocolates to their selections to try.”
“Oishi” – Japanese for delicious
The melding of European and Japanese baking cultures can hardly be more obvious than in the baum cake; a hollow, concentric cake made by applying layer after layer of batter on a spindle that rotates inside a purpose-built oven.
While the baum cake has its roots in German culture, it was introduced to Japan after WWI and has become a staple Japanese sweet treat ever since.
Chicago native Heather Alcott was living in Singapore when she first smelt the distinctive baum cake aroma wafting from a Japanese bakery. Immediately after eating the cake, Heather says she started planning a way to bring the sweet treat to Denver, Colorado.
“As soon as I ate it, I realised I had not only come across Japan’s best kept secret, but also found a unique concept for the US,” she says.
Two years on and countless trips back and forth to Tokyo, Heather now owns the thriving Glaze Baum Cake Shoppe. All pastry chefs working in her kitchen have been trained by a Japanese Baumkuchen chef, ensuring the product retains its authenticity.
“The kitchen is a true melting pot of the best parts of European, American and Japanese baking traditions. The heavenly glaze is often Belgian Callebaut chocolate, white chocolate, Cointreau, limoncello and rum, while the cakes themselves are prepared from high quality almond flour, Japanese matcha tea and the best of local Denver produce,” Heather says.
In German, baum means ‘tree’ – and when looking at the cake’s concentric circles, it’s easy to see why the delectable Euro-Asian recipe is often referred to as the ‘tree of life’. Originally introduced to the Japanese city of Kobe, baum cakes often earn their place in ‘special occasion’ menus.
For Heather, the biggest challenge in replicating the cake on a different continent was the purpose-built oven, which her team has affectionately dubbed “the red dragon”.
“Even highly-trained bakers would not be able to replicate the magic of this Japanese treat without this red beauty that weighs more than a small car. At 2200 pounds and six feet tall by five feet wide, the Seki Ryuu is really the Sumo of ovens and features more buttons than the control panel on a 747!”
The only one of its kind in North America, the oven has six rotating spigots and can bake up to 90 cakes at a time, with a temperature gauge that can reach up to 600°C. Heather even flew a baum cake technician from Japan, with the sole purpose to turn the oven on.
“I have a Japanese employee who has been with me for two years. He was key in helping with the negotiating process and helping bridge the cultural gap,” she says.
Glaze Baum Cake Shoppe offers several kinds of cakes, from the original Baum Cake to the Matcha Baum and Apple Baum. Great attention to detail is paid to all varieties, for example, the Mount Baum incorporates two imported sugars – one from Canada and one from Japan – to create the best possible texture.
The space itself also mimics a Tokyo bakery in its minimalist standing counter, where customers can enjoy their treats and watch the bakers craft the cake batter.
“I am inspired by art and décor from Asia and I have collected a number of art pieces from all of my Asian travels – this style extends into the bakery,” Heather says.
“The store is decorate with customer Shoji screens and bamboo bars and shelving. The minimalist style calms me.”
MATCHA MACARONS WITH BLACK SESAME PASTE
By Fiona Ho
(makes 20-25 macarons)
110g icing sugar
60g almond powder
60g aged egg white (separate from egg yolk, store in the fridge for one week and leave at room temperature for 24 hours)
40g caster sugar
1 tablespoon matcha powder
A few drops of green colouring
3 tablespoons of black sesame seeds
70g sweetened condensed milk
100g white chocolate buttons
1. Lay two large sheets of parchment paper onto baking tray. If you are a macaron beginner, lay templates underneath;
2. Sift icing sugar, almond meal and matcha powder in a large bowl. Mix with a spatula until combined;
3. With a hand mixer, whisk egg white in another bowl and gradually add caster sugar in three separate additions until it forms soft peaks. Do not overmix as this will thin the batter;
4. Add food colouring to the meringue and fold together with a spatula;
5. Add the meringue mixture into the dry ingredients and fold. The first few folds may seem lumpy to combine, so give it a few more folds. At about 20 folds, the batter should come together with a nice, consistent texture;
6. Make sure the batter is not too thick or thin. To test, scoop some batter and hold it up – if the batter falls like a thick ribbon, then it’s ready;
7. Pour half the mixture into piping bag and pipe out 3cm diameter circles, at least 2cm apart;
8. Repeat step 6 with the rest of the mixture;
9. On a bench top, tap the baking tray a few times to remove large bubbles on the surface of the macaron shells;
10. Leave to dry for an hour. It should form a dry skin. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 140-150°C;
11. After drying, place the macaron shells into the oven in the middle section for even air and bake for 20-25 minutes, depending on the size and oven types;
12. Leave macaron shells out to dry on a rack. Do not try to remove them from paper until it is completely cool;
13. Prepare the filling. Using a food processor, blend black sesame seeds until it forms a powdery texture;
14. Place a heatproof bowl over a pot of simmering water (do not let the bottom of the bowl touch the water). Add condensed milk and chocolate buttons. Leave for one-to-two minutes to allow chocolate to melt;
15. Stir chocolate until it has a shiny texture. Pour in the sesame powder in three additions. Stir to combine. Remove from the heat and leave aside for two minutes to cool down;
16. Carefully remove the macaron shells from the parchment paper;
17. Using a spoon, dollop a teaspoon of black sesame filling to one shell and sandwich it with another size-matching shell. Do not press too hard or it will crack; and
18. Store in an air-tight container and pop them into the fridge/freezer. Consume within four-to-five days.
• Ensure aged egg white is used – simply separate the quantity of egg white required away from the egg yolk, place in an air-tight container and put into the fridge five days before making your macaron. Leave egg white in room temperature 24-hours before making
• Be careful not to over-mix or under-mix the batter otherwise it will be hard to pipe nice circles.
• Drying time is important for macrons to form “feet”. Do not rush and place macaron shells immediately after piping.
By Belle Fleur Fine Chocolates
Makes 40 pieces
80g good quality milk chocolate buttons (minimum 43 per cent cocoa)
65ml pure cream
Fresh grated wasabi, to taste
10g unsalted butter, softened, diced
Chocolate moulds, already moulded in dark chocolate
Bring cream to the boil. Add freshly grated wasabi and warm through gently to infuse and for flavour to develop.
Remove mixture from heat and pour over the buttons.
Stir slowly to combine. When lumps are gone, add butter and stir through until melted.
When the mixture has cooled slightly, scoop into piping bag and pipe into your moulds leaving a 2mm gap from the top.
Close the mould with tempered dark chocolate.